Sept. 15, 2006 | 2:35 p.m. ET

News of E.coli in spinach (Lea Thompson, Dateline correspondent)

This latest E.coli outbreak is truly disturbing .  One person has died, 50 others have been sickened, and health officials say they expect that number to rise. 

The Food and Drug Administration is asking everyone not to eat commercially bagged spinach until investigators can pin down what products have been contaminated.  Health officials suspect the outbreak is tied to bagged fresh spinach, but no recall has been issued — and none will be — until the source, or sources, of the E.coli can be determind and confirmed.  For now, please listen closely to announcements from health officials about what not to buy and eat. No one wants anyone else getting sick.

Seeing the suffering this outbreak is causing is distressing. But what is equally distressing is this: no one really knows how to keep it from happening again.

Despite focused research by federal, state and local food safety experts — and despite sincere efforts by the industry — no one has yet pinned down just how E.coli is entering and thriving in leafy greens. And since the experts really don't know how the contamination is occurring, they don't know what to do to keep outbreaks from happening again.

The fact is millions of us eat spinach and lettuce safely every day, so your chances of getting E.coli poisoning are small. But it is also a fact that these nasty E.coli outbreaks keep happening. As we reported in April, there was an E.coli outbreak last year linked to bag lettuce.  This time, it's allegedly bagged spinach that is contaminated.  Over the past decade, the pattern has repeated itself — the Food and Drug Administration says there have been at least 19 E.coli outbreaks linked to lettuce or spinach since 1995.

Let me pass along a few tips to lower your chances of getting sick:

  • Wash your hands before you open the bag. Really, it is important.
Video: How to wash your hands properly
  • Be careful not to allow either the bag or the salad to come close to raw meat juices (they might contain E.coli or other bad bacteria).
  • Before you buy, take a look at that sell by date and don't buy the salad if that date has passed.
  • If the salad stays out too long (gets too warm) at home or starts to look brown or gooey around the edges — don't try to save it, throw it away.
  • And if you do get sick, think salad! It might be the culprit...and if there is any of the salad left in the bag, don't throw it away. (The salad may need to be tested.)
  • If you get really sick, sick enough to go to the hospital, let the doctors know you had salad in a bag. And if you find out you are contaminated with E.coli, call your local health department so someone else doesn't get sick.

Editor's note: Click here to read Lea Thompson's April report . Four months later, the story is still one of the 10 most popular links on the Dateline site. Click here for more tips.

April 28, 2006 | 10:30 a.m. ET

How is E. coli getting into the lettuce crops in this country? (Lea Thompson, Dateline Chief Consumer Correspondent)

Sometimes when I go out on a story, like we just did on E. coli contamination of lettuce, I feel the same exhilaration that we all had when we got out of school for the day to go on a field trip.

This time Producer Jack Cloherty and I were off on a field trip — a literal one — we set out to see the miles and miles of verdant green lettuce growing in the fields of southern Arizona.

We went to Yuma, so close to the border of Mexico that you could almost see it. It's set in a very sunny spot where the Gila and Colorado Rivers converge.  It's where Spanish conquistadors and pioneers set off  for mysterious parts unknown.

And we went to Yuma to investigate a mystery. How is E. coli O157 getting into the lettuce crops in this country?

We met with farmers and ranchers who are as baffled as the government is. They are all anxious to solve the problem because E. coli can kill and it is also very bad for business.

Video: E.coli danger? Some very nice people took us around and we saw the self-imposed rules they follow to keep your lettuce safe. For instance, workers wear hairnets in the field...those with "facial hair", including our producer Jack, have to put nets on their beards.

A few things were surprising to me. Head lettuce is wrapped in cellophane right in the field and shipped off to the grocery without being washed. Now I understand why they tell you to wash your lettuce before you eat it.

Much of the bagged lettuce you buy today is actually cored right in the field. Workers use these big coring knives, and with one twist they core out the heart of the plant, much like you might core a pineapple. And, even though that lettuce then goes through a chlorine bath, some experts worry the process might also allow E.coli to get to the heart of the head.

We didn't solve the problem while we were there. But our trip did help us understand how lettuce is grown and how animal or bird droppings or flooding with contaminated waters could take E.coli into a field. We also got great pictures.

E-coli in lettuce is a growing and serious dilemma. But, our conversations with hard working investigators with the Centers for Disease Control in Minneapolis, and with California authorities tell us they are on the case.

And a few kudos: Jack Cloherty and I have been partners for years — he does just great work. Yolanda McCutchen did wonderful research on this story and Tressa Verna, as always, brought it alive with her nimble fingers at the console in her editing room.

Stay tuned... this is a story that is not going away.

Click here to read the report aired April 30 on Dateline NBC.

March 26, 2006 | 2:05 p.m. ET

When Katrina victims find lost money (Lea Thompson, Dateline Chief Consumer Correspondent)

It was stunning seeing the devastation for the first time. Of course, I had watched hours of it on TV — but in person, what surprised me the most was the width and breadth of it all. We arrived on the Gulf Coast six months after Hurricane Katrina dropped in and, in many areas, it looks like the storm just came ashore yesterday.

Dateline producer Marianne O'Donnell and I were on the Gulf Coast to find money for victims of Katrina. A strange assignment for journalists but Marianne and I had been involved in unclaimed funds before.

In Mississippi, not unlike a lot of other states, one out of every four people has money they forgot about or didn't know they had sitting in state coffers. But, now, people on the Gulf Coast need it more than ever and State Treasurer Tate Reeves and the head of his Unclaimed Property Division, John Younger, asked us to come along  to help try to find some of those folks whose lives have been devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

For some people, we only had a few hundred dollars to give away, for others the state had $30,000 (a lost investment account), $200,000 (a secret bank account inherited from a parent) - $950,000 (stock the state had for years that had skyrocketed in value). But, when you are living in a FEMA trailer, any extra cash was welcome.

All we had was a list of Mississippi people owed money by the state and their last known address. Kudos to Marianne O'Donnell who used all of her very fine investigative techniques to find so many people.

Every person involved in this story, our cameramen Jack Rayzor and Bob Abrahamsen, our soundmen Dana Marxen and Randy Foster and our editors, Saverio Camporeale and Bob Spencer had their heart in this story. We met the most incredible people along the way... each one with a hurricane story to tell.

Many of these families have lost everything but their lives and yet they have such great spirit and optimism for the future. We left the Gulf Coast knowing that whatever problems we thought we had were nothing compared to what these people are living through.

Dateline's report on unclaimed funds airs Sunday, March 26 7 p.m.

January 21, 2006 | 4:30 p.m. ET

Supermarket Sweep: Is your grocery store clean? (Lea Thompson, Dateline Chief Consumer Correspondent)

What an assignment: slogging around grocery stores looking for grime, vermin, and other things that could make you sick. Our "Supermarket Sweep" story continues our look at safe food. You may remember our Dirty Dining series on fast food and family restaurants . We also took a hard look at school cafeterias . A natural extension, and an important one — supermarkets.

These stories are an incredible undertaking and we believe this is the largest survey of grocery store cleanliness and safety ever done. Producers Lynn Keller and Liz Brown collected health inspection reports for a thousand stores — 100 stores in each of the top ten grocery chains. Then we pored over about 4,500 inspection reports looking for "critical violations" — those things the federal food code or the local jurisdiction designates as problems serious enough to cause disease. Andy Lehren, our awesome computer guru, then crunched the numbers to come up with a top ten list — a list where no chain wants to be number one.

Liz Brown headed out with a laser digital thermometer and a hidden camera. She, and other Dateline producers, hit 18 stores all over the country.

Frankly, I was surprised the inspection reports showed so many temperature citations: perhaps it is something I didn't think much about before. But, if hot food is not kept hot enough, in the deli for instance, it can form dangerous bacteria after only a few hours. And the same thing goes for cold food — say deli meat or cheese. If it gets too warm, it starts to decay. Yuck.

Another surprise for me? We found an awful lot of expired products on the shelf. How many of us ever look for expiration dates? The one that bothered us the most was infant formula. Infant formula is often the sole source of nutrition for babies... and we know that after a period of time the vitamins start to drop out.

We also found a lot of nasty, disgusting things— mouse and rat traps, egg goo all over everything, meat sitting on bloody trays...

Please know that there are a lot of really clean stores in this country... but it is hard to know sometimes what is clean and what isn't.

Video: How safe is the store where you shop?

One way I learned to judge a store? Take a deep smell when you walk in, especially around the meat counter. If you get a whiff of something putrid — head out the door. And check out the bathrooms. Federal food codes say there must be soap and hot water. Can you imagine the germs being spread if there is no hot water to wash hands in after going to the bathroom?

We've got a lot of other good ideas here on our Web site . After our show on Sunday, you can read the full script.

MSNBC's Health Editor Jane Weaver put together some other tips for you . And be sure to read what the stores have to say about what we found.

Jim Sinegal, the CEO of the Costco warehouse stores told us "This is kinda of a wake up call for us and I think probably for everybody in our industry." Bottom line: Don't just assume what you buy is safe.

And, after you get all those groceries home remember to wash the produce well (studies show 40 people before you have pawed through it) and don't ever forget to cook your meat thoroughly.

Until next time, thanks for reading this— and watching Dateline Sunday night.

Dateline airs Sunday, 7 p.m. on NBC. Write us at for thoughts on this issue, or if you have smart shopping tips of your own to share.


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